Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ivorian Petits Pois (Ivory Coast Peas)

A quicky I've fallen in love with. . .

1 can of peas
1 large onion
½ cup shopped tomatoes
1 small can of tomato paste
1 cube bullion (or salt)
2 eggs, beaten

Sauté onions and tomatoes in a pan until well cooked. Mix in tomato paste and peas (with juice). Crumble seasoning into the mixture. When well heated, stir in the beaten eggs. Stir constantly for several minutes to ensure that the eggs don’t scramble. Serve over rice or cous cous.

The First Noel. . .

Christmas was different this year. I guess I expected it to be. I made a commitment to myself that I would stay in my village and try to experience how my community celebrates Noel.

Several circumstances made my loneliness not heart-wrenching. First of all, I had already been away from my family on Christmas eve for the last two years, working as a church musician. Secondly, because one sister just had a baby (Congrats Morrows!), and another is a medical professional who has to work some holidays, my family back home didn’t manage to get together for Christmas, so there wasn’t that constant feeling of “missing out.” Finally, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a few dear fellow volunteers. When we were melancholy, we could at least be so en groupe.

Katie and I did some shopping for our Christmas Eve and Day dinner in Parakou on the 24th, and then caught a bush taxi back to my village. That evening we made a bean soup, had baguettes with Vache Qui Rite (Laughing Cow, closest thing to western cheese at a decent price here), and sangria. We watched a few episodes of the first season of Lost on my newly restored computer (thanks Jason and Sarah’s parents!), and then dressed up in our traditional dress for midnight Mass.

My Nigerian friend Emanuel, Katie, Adrien’s brother Martin, and I went to Mass together. The experience is hard to describe. I wouldn’t say that it was magical or wonderful, but I wouldn’t say it was disappointing either. Like so much of the culture here, you take it for what it is.

We were exhausted from the beginning, which is to be expected if one goes to church after one’s bedtime. All three choirs were represented: the Fon, Nagot, and French chorals all sang pieces of the liturgy and sometimes even performed together. The French choir processed in, dancing and singing Siyahamba (which is neither a song specific to the culture here, nor a Christmas song), followed by the servers and priest.

There was no lack for music. The opening rites took a great deal of time – everything sung (a Confiteor, Kyrie, Gloria). The readings were done in typical style, one in Nagot, the second in French, and the Gospel in three languages, followed by a homily in both French and Bariba. The result was multi-cultural Liturgy on speed. It worked.

A rousing song at the Preparation of the Table woke us all up, and brought me my second wind that kept me alive for the rest of the liturgy. Earlier that day, Katie and I had sat on my front porch sorting beans and singing Christmas songs. There was little glimmer of hope that they would sing something I know – a French carol or a popular song translated into a local language. This didn’t happen. All the music, save for Siyahamba, was new to me.

I bought a Chicken first thing on Christmas day (so the vegetarian thing has been a little loose lately). Emmanuel walked out to the Catholic mission, where I bought two fresh for sale chickens (one for the landlord, one for my friends and I), and carried them back into village.

Having tied up the chickens, Katie and I hopped a car to Tchaourou where my postmates Steve and Jaren were preparing a Christmas party for Orphans. I was to be the star guest- Papan de Noël. We spent the morning with the other volunteers including Chris from Parakou and Kendra from the south, ate Christmas brunch, did the “gig,” and Katie, Kendra, and I headed back to slaughter the chicken.

The other day a friend said to me that her favorite part of being with her peace corps friends is the cooking. When two or three of us get together, something spectacular always happens. We struggled a bit to kill the chicken and a spectator Maman quickly became head butcher. Once the chicken was thoroughly dead, we boiled and fried it. The meat was accompanied by mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, cranberry sauce (made with crasins), and peas and carrots. Granted, it wasn’t your typical Christmas flare, but we enjoyed it and ate very well.

The day after Christmas Katie, Kendra, and I traveled south through the northern part of the Collines (large rock hills), to see our friend and my Minnesotan sister, Claire. Claire lives in a village comparable to mine, maybe a little bigger, with a huge market, two schools, and a large Catholic church.

Though we hadn’t planned on it, a large part of the trip involved helping her post-mate Sebastian with a world map project. The idea is to paint a world map on the side of a school building that students and teachers can use it to better understand the make up of our little planet earth. A grid is drawn, and each of us took a square and copied the outline of countries from a guide. After, students helped us to paint the countries and finish the map.

That evening, we cooked another feast. This time, quasi-Mexican, with tortillas, refried beans, Spanish rice, and Ivorian peas. For dessert, we ate funfetti cake, courtesy of Katie’s mom, who is clearly the queen of care packages. We ate well, slept well, and returned home the next day.

Like every holiday here so far, it was memorable. It doesn’t take much for it to be memorable. My life is just so vastly different from the life I led seven months ago. I can’t help but know that I will remember these holidays for the rest of my life.

Getting to know Benin. . .

Three months having past, I’m slowly expanding my own experience of Benin by visiting various friends around the country. The diversity of our experiences is vast; sometimes I’m frightened by their living situations and other times I’m jealous.

I visited Katie in her little village north of Parakou first. When I say little it’s because it is so little that it makes my village look like a city. Where mine has a sparkling, painted highway and street signs, she has a broken potholed goudron. Where I have electricity and easily accessible water, she has candles and a pump a mile away.

Her house is much like mine – one big room, two little rooms, but she has a private space in the back with an outdoors shower. This is a big deficit in my current living situations. I don’t have outside escape from my environment. It causes me too be buried in my house when I want alone time.

As they say in the real estate business, location is everything. In this case her everything is in the middle of a field on the outskirts of town. Its downside is isolation. Its upside – isolation. I can sleep there without being woken by a mosque or highway noise. I could go to the WC without 10 eyes watching my voyage. At the same time, as a single, petite female, the isolation worries her from time to time. It would probably worry me too.

I catch myself thinking that she is real Peace Corps and I am Peace Corps Light. Staying the night in her house presented several firsts. My first outdoors showering experience; my first evening lit by kerosene lamps; my first view of an ox driven cart, the latter being the norm here, though I had not yet seen it.

I might feel a little bit bad for her, if she didn’t have the radio station. It’s a Christian radio station. Walking into the building, one might be easily deceived to think he is in America. Air conditioning, painted walls and tiled floors, and even some white people. Don’t mention the toilets stocked with toilet paper and. . . the high speed internet. That’s right, in exchange for a few English lessons to the Beninese employees, Katie gets access to their satellite linked high speed internet. I’ve been rumored to take advantage of this when visiting. What a joy.

Step back outside the building and you’re soon back in the real world. Her school is reasonably new, but includes two outdoor “payotte” classrooms. There are more mud brick houses and naked big bellied children there too. It’s clear to me that her village is much poorer than mine.

Next Katie and I went to Nora’s village. If Katie’s village makes mine look like a city, then Nora’s makes it look like a bustling metropolis. To get there, I had to go north of Katie’s village to N’dali, and east halfway to the Bariba capitol of Nikki. As a result, her village is in high Bariba country, and except for using French at school, a volunteer might be better off learning the local language rather than French.

Except for her priest. When she arrived au village, her priest, an amusing Indian who speaks wonderful English, invited her over for dinner. He has a cook, and Nora got in the habit of eating with him, eventually paying a monthly contribution for food. So in the middle of remote Africa, I ate wonderful Indian foot with Nora, Katie, and Fr. Jesu, speaking English the whole time.

Nora lives in an old dispensary, which means it is about twice as big as mine and comparable to many American houses. You might think she lucked out, but actually, she only uses about 50% of the space. This is a result of both a lack of furniture and a bat infestation in the rooms without a good ceiling.

Her house is also powered with solar energy, which recharges batteries, giving her lights 24/7, completely uninterrupted. Strangely, this little village has a variety of solar panels to power street lights and different government buildings. Many of them, however, don’t work. It’s just another example of reckless development.

While there, we went to Mass together. It was a different experience for me. The people were singing and clapping (I really don’t see that much here) and the liturgy was entirely in French and Bariba. About halfway through the liturgy, Katie leaned over and said, “You’re sitting on the wrong side.” I had no idea what she meant, then I looked around. The church was completely segregated. House left was all women and house right was all men. I was sitting with the women. Fortunately strangers get away with such atrocities.

When I get together with other volunteers, there is no want of entertainment. We don’t need TV or movies or board games, yet, anyway. We talk for hours about our experiences au village and our lives before Peace Corps. We’ve become close friends in 6 months- there is much catching up to do. My friends and I are all so different that only the Peace Corps could bring us together from such various backgrounds and life experiences.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jaded Christmas Poetry

Christmas Au Village

Sing carols! Rock the poor to sleep tonight,
chançons of greed and lust put right.
The air, so mixed with dust now falling fast
has sought like now to paint the past.
Preferring options once passé, they sing
the glory of money, the king.
Hot water, cystal drops are floating clean,
any current here is queen.
But scrawny children dance the street to say:
“Our poverty! Shall go away?”
Wassail! Weak children, singing cheer so bright.
With pride, we recognize your plight.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Care Package List

I've done a little work on my care package list:


I haven't received 3 packages, and I wonder if it has to do with them being in padded envelopes. Many people here have successfully received flat rate boxes from the US. Perhaps boxes are a safer mode of transit? Anyway, if I haven't received your package, I'm curious, was it in an envelope or a box?

Friday, December 19, 2008

More pictures. . .

From Untitled Album

As a Christmas present for Adrien, I got us matching tissue boumbas, a popular thing to do among families during the holiday seasons. He insisted on having our picture taken so he could show it to his family when he goes home. Here we are with Sarah.

From Untitled Album

Sarah, the chosen one, th dog who gets to live like an American in Africa.

From Untitled Album

The men slaughtering a ram to celebrate Tabaski.

From Untitled Album

The baby of the concession plays in on of the derelict vans used to transport gas in 40liter vats from Nigeria where it is cheaper.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thanksgiving and such. . .

From Untitled Album

My new puppy, Sarah at 4 weeks.

I will never forget this Thanksgiving. My fellow volunteers and I took a huge step, leaving our closest friends behind to start a new adventure. Sure there will be new friends- even new family- but those few times a year when our loved ones back home are all together will still be difficult.

Fortunately we TEFL volunteers were freed from our three month long post arrest in order to go to the Personal Strategy Workshop in Parakou. We started planning early in the week. Various people were delegated to various dishes. We ate well:

-turkey legs
-sweet potatoes (white here, and no marshmallows)
-stuffing (this was my job, made with beer)
-mashed potatoes
-salad (cabbage salad, not much lettuce here)
-corn bread
-fruit salad

In the courtyard of the workstation we set up tables with wine bottles serving as candle holders. In my five months here, I’ve yet to feel so at home in Africa. It tasted like America – a ritual meal that my family ate at the same time on the other side of the world. We were entranced by the joy, the sameness – our unique ability to recreate the same feast thousands of miles away from home.

I went home to my village next day, renewed by a week of talking with my friends and working out our common issues in village. My village seemed different. Adrien was one of the first to greet me, and promptly, we decided to go find a dog. I had mentioned to him a few weeks ago, and he already knew of a few people who were selling them. Many of my friends the previous week had spoken of how wonderful their cats and dogs were – there lives seemed better for it.

So we found Sarah. She was far too young to be taken from her mother at three weeks, but at the time I didn’t know any better. Ever since then, I have been cleaning up her excrement 24/7. She sleeps and stays outside on my porch when I’m not home, but that doesn’t stop her from pooping the second she enters my house. I feed her oatmeal or porridge with fish powder. Slowly, she’s forgotten her mother.

I told a maman who was in my concession Sarah was my “baby.” She was alarmed by this, not realizing that I was joking. “C’est pas bon” she said, that’s not good. Then she continued to tell me that I was too old not to be married. People are very direct here. She was baffled when I told her I was 25. Everyone thinks that I am older here. She seemed a little relieved when I explained that it didn’t make sense for me to find a wife for two years here, and then go back to America and leave her here. I said I would find “une femme” when I go back to the states. She seemed satisfied.

The results for the first test are in. For my first year students, the results were pretty good. For my second year students, most failed, and I think my results were probably better than other teachers. The education continues, and I have to plow forward at this point, knowing many of them may never catch up with me. It’s disappointing to be a small minion of the education system here, knowing that there is so much I can’t change.

From Untitled Album

Odd duck. . .

Last night I had a dream that I was trying to photograph a sunset. Beautiful reds and blues dancing in the fat African sun, glowing in the dusty haze. I fiddled with my camera, pressing buttons and testing out settings. Nothing worked, nothing ever does. I want to capture everyday life, put it in a zip file and email it to the world.

Life is so vastly different- so bizarre. I can hardly do it justice in a blog post or a photo. When I first got here, I probably thought “well that’s different,” thirty times a day. Now it’s probably ten or fifteen, but all the same, I’m reminded that despite my integration, I don’t belong here. It’s good to remember that from time to time, so I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am really completely integrated into the life and culture of my village.

Sometimes these moments are as simple as a strange conversation. When you’re away for a short time, people demand gifts. You don’t arrive to “Good to have you back,” but rather “What did you bring me.” Often what I understand of conversations is so strange to me, that I assume that I haven’t understood correctly. Usually I find out later, he really was saying what I thought.

And then there are strange hygiene habits - using razor blades to cut fingernails, blowing noses and wiping mucus on the wall closest wall, or even going to the WC without toilet paper. Often the focus turns to me. They’re disgusted by my use of toilet paper or by my eating with my left hand.

Sometimes I see things that just don’t belong. There are three turkeys that gobble past my house every day. What are they doing in Africa? Who eats them? Continuing with the poultry theme, I often see a set of ducks wandering the village. What are ducks doing in a region with no rain and no standing water to speak of for 8 out of 12 months a year?

I’m about as bizarre here as the ducks, I think. Accepting that has helped me to at least feel comfortable with who I am- the odd duck of the village. The unmarried teacher who cooks for himself and teaches his dog tricks. Six months of twenty six completed, I realize now that the second the sun rises it begins to set. There’s so much that I don’t want to miss.